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Posts Tagged ‘christianity’

I joined a gym a year ago, after having successfully avoided gyms for most of my adult life. Few things make me feel as awkward as walking into a room filled with exercise equipment of mysterious usage and shape. I’m not in shape, graceful, or athletic; the sight of so many people who seem to know what they’re doing emphasizes my self-doubt every time I set foot into a gym. This gym, though, claimed to be “judgment-free”, with rules to reinforce the idea that they are a gym for everyone: no skimpy clothing. No banging the weights around. No exaggerated huffing and puffing during workouts.

I had my doubts, but I decided to give it a shot. To my surprise, the rules and the atmosphere do seem to create an atmosphere free of judgment. The philosophy is that everyone at the gym is there for the same basic reason: to increase their fitness and health. Thus, no participant should be judging any other participant for where they are in the process, for how heavy or light their workout seems to be, or how hard they seem to be working. Each person should be focused on their own goal, not on anyone else’s goal or progress.

It reminds me of the church community. In many ways, we are to be a “judgment-free” zone as well. It doesn’t mean we suspend our wise discernment at the door. Just like at the gym, we still have to discern right from wrong: if someone is breaking the rules or using the equipment in a way that is harmful to themselves or others, we have a responsibility to step in. The key is in avoiding condemnation. And that, too, is in line with how the church community should function.

Consider Romans 14. In this passage, Paul is writing specifically about some other issues that had cropped up amongst the believers. But he discourages contempt of one another as he writes, “Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand…But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written:

‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, and every tongue shall confess to God.’

So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way” (Romans 14:4, 10-13).

The issues Paul addressed were not issues of the law; rather, they were issues of how one applied God’s word in one’s life. Indeed, the same can be said of many issues that divide our church communities today. Just like those who go to a gym, we are all in various places in our journey towards our goal. Some of the specifics of our workouts are going to be different, but the ultimate goal is the same. There is definitely a place for taking a brother aside when he is clearly choosing to live in ways contrary to God’s instruction; but there is no place for holding our brethren in contempt. When we do that, we act as though they are ours to judge—and while we’re scrutinizing their actions, we are taking our eyes off of our own work. We must remember that all of us will give an account for how we applied God’s word in our lives.

The judgment-free idea goes beyond avoiding contempt: it also discourages intimidation. When I walk into the gym, everyone else looks like they have their fitness plan together. It takes a lot of courage to stand next to an actual runner who is on the elliptical and then drag myself through an obviously less-strenuous workout. If I had to also compete with sneering attitudes, I would have quit within the first month.

Church is the same way. When we struggle, it’s easy to see our brethren as people who have it all together. And if those people also see themselves as those who are superior to us, we will never be able to ask for help from one another. The judging gets in the way of love. The contempt becomes a stumbling block—and it may just be big enough to knock us out of the race all together.

The bottom line? Our churches should be the safest place we could ever be. Safe because there are rules that we all must follow: God’s commands. Safe because we have a model we all must work from: Christ’s example. Safe because we recognize that we are all there as people who don’t deserve to be there, but have been called by the grace of God. Safe because we are each dedicated to completing our own work well—knowing that we will give account—and because we assume that others have that same goal, even if some of our specific choices aren’t the same. Safe because we devote ourselves to love and outgoing concern, one for another.

Let us dedicate ourselves to reaching out to one another in love and help. Let us remember that we all stand or fall before God, not one another, and that we all must give account. May we all complete our journey successfully.

 

 

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I remember distinctly the feeling of having my joy deflated. I was walking down the hallway of the elementary school where I worked, and it was the first day of school. I loved my job, I loved the students, and I was just so happy to be right where I was that my joy was written on my face. Two women walked down the hallway toward me, and as they passed, one commented to the other, “Just wait until a month from now. She won’t be smiling THEN.”

She meant her words to be funny, but they really hurt. In a moment, my joy went from just plain joy to being something suspect, something temporary and a little ridiculous. It hurt to have my very positive feelings unappreciated. I was still happy to be where I was—and confident that I would still be joyful a month from that date—but I felt deflated.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a solitary experience. We don’t have to spend long in any environment—work, school, shopping, watching TV—to see that same kind of response to happiness and joy:

“What are YOU so happy about?”

“Yeah? What makes it a GOOD morning?”

“Well, just wait [until your kids are teenagers…until your first fight…until you’re 40]. THEN you won’t be so chipper.”

It has happened so often that I have developed my own term for the statements: “joy-jabbers”. The thrust of the joy-jabbers is that one’s joy or happiness is based on something temporary, and that when the circumstances change, the joy will be replaced with discouragement. Ultimately, the underlying implication is that the joyful or happy person is, well, not too smart. Because if they were smart, they would be just as miserable as everyone else.  In fact, if you type “happy people” and “stupid” into a search engine, you will find lots of people talking about whether happy people are really stupid or only perceived that way.

So what does all this have to do with the Christian journey? I think there’s a connection. Now, joy and happiness are not the same thing. Happiness tends to be based on outside circumstances: it’s a sunny day, I had my coffee, and I got a letter from my friend in the mail. Happiness! Joy, however, is a deep-seated emotion that isn’t based on outside circumstances. In the Christian walk, our joy is based on faith that God will keep His promises to His people, and that He will care for His flock, no matter how the outside circumstances look.

The Bible is full of references to joy. The Psalms repeatedly encourage the reader to be joyful in the Lord and to shout for joy because of His righteous deeds. Isaiah 35:10 points to a day when the ransomed of God shall return with joy and gladness. The apostle Paul wrote that those who ministered to the Corinthians strove to be helpers of their joy (1 Corinthians 1:24) by establishing them in faith, and joy is listed as a fruit of the Holy Spirit in Galatians 5:22.

We live in difficult times, and we will all have experiences that will discourage us or make us temporarily unhappy, or even joyless. What should our attitude be towards those who are cheerful, happy, and joyful when we don’t feel the same way? Again, the Bible offers instruction. Paul writes in Romans 12:15 that we ought to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep”. It is entirely appropriate to sometimes be sad, and we ought not be swift to force those who mourn into false cheer. But just as importantly, when someone is joyful, we ought to encourage that joy instead of seeking to snatch it away.

The next time you are tempted to answer a positive statement with a negative commentary, think instead about rejoicing with that joy. Remember the Biblical perspective on joy and gladness, and resist the temptation to be a joy-jabber.

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We live in a time of rapid technological advances, when staying in touch with one another through our phones and computers is easier than ever before. With just a few keystrokes or clicks of the mouse, we can bring the world into our living room. And with so much convenience, even devout churchgoers sometimes ask, “Why bother going to church?” If we can hear the same sermons in the comfort of our homes, or even watch church services online, and round it out with our own favorite worship music, is there any reason to actually go to church?

The answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Why?

    1. The Bible instructs us to assemble.
      The author of Hebrews instructs readers to “…consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrews 10:24-25). Not only are we told not to forsake assembling together, but are also told why we should:
    2. It’s not just about us.
      You can get a lot of information from a sermon online. You can learn, you can feel closer to God, you can have your faith strengthened. What you can’t do by sitting at home and listening to sermons is help anyone else. The writer’s instruction in Hebrews 10:24-25 doesn’t stop at telling us to assemble; he explains that instead of forsaking assembly, we ought to consider one another to stir up love, to stir up good works, and to exhort each other. Church services aren’t just about getting our spiritual needs met: they are a way for us to make sure that others are getting their spiritual needs met, as well as their physical and emotional needs.
    3. The church isn’t just a place, it’s people.When we are baptized, we aren’t baptized into a building, or into an organization: we are baptized into the body of Christ. Paul writes that “by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…in fact the body is not one member but many…” (1 Corinthians 12:13,14). In this chapter, Paul reiterates several times the thought that we are one body but also individual members. While he is talking about the spiritual gifts that God has endowed on the members of the body, he also brings out that we are to be a body in unity: “…God composed the body…that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another…” (1 Corinthians 12:24,25). We are not called to be isolated individuals, all doing our own thing: God called us to put us together as a united body.
    4. Spiritual gifts are used when we are together.
      Writing in Romans 12, Paul states, “we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (Romans 12:5). Again, Paul’s main point is to explain the diversity of spiritual gifts, but how they ought to work together to bring unity. The concept of spiritual gifts is an important one, individually and for the church. In Ephesians, Paul expounds on why Christ gave the gifts:“And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:11-16).The gifts aren’t given to benefit the recipient: the gifts are given so that the recipient can benefit others, in the context of Christ’s body, the church. For every part to do its share, the body has to be knit together as one. And that can’t happen if various parts of the body scatter themselves away from the body.
    5. Christ attended church.
      Luke writes that Christ “came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read…” (Luke 4:16). If anyone could have claimed that church held nothing for Him, surely it would have been Christ. What need did the Messiah have for assembling together? But here we see that this appearance in the synagogue with the assembly was not a one-time occurrence: it was His custom.

When we choose to follow Christ, we are baptized into the body of believers, a unified group of individual members. We are given spiritual gifts to help one another and to help unify that body. We are told to care for one another; we are even told that we become members of one another. We are told not to forsake assembling together, but rather to use those assemblies to stir one another to good works. When we come together for weekly services, we also follow our spiritual Head’s example. We must bear these things in mind and then put them into practice. See you at church!

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Tomorrow evening, my husband and I will be taking part in the annual commemoration of Christ’s death for us: Passover. As I prepare for this Holy Day, of course, I think about Christ’s ultimate sacrifice: His death by crucifixion. Whenever I think of Christ laying down His life, it is this final sacrifice that first comes to mind.

This year, however, I have come to realize anew that Christ laid down his life on earth as a living sacrifice: long before He died on the cross, He had given away His earthly life for the sake of those He came to save. The accounts of His ministry record travel, constant teaching, loss of reputation, bearing of insults, healing, comforting, encouraging, correcting. His sleep was disturbed (Matthew 8:24-25), His privacy interrupted  (Matthew 14:13), His name scorned (Mark 3:20-22). He did all these things, all the while knowing that those He served would, in His hour of need, desert Him.

My change in perspective regarding how Christ laid down His life made me look at Paul’s instruction in Romans 12 differently, too. Paul writes that we ought to present our bodies “a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1). He continues in the vein of how we should live our lives: not conformed to the world; using the gifts God has given us for the benefit of others; acting in love, humility, diligence, patience, repaying no one evil for evil, living at peace with one another.

I find that I am far more likely to be willing to make big sacrifices than little ones. If I have to massively rearrange my schedule, or change where I’m living, or do something extremely challenging, I can at least feel noble about it. At least in my own head, I can label that a sacrifice and feel good about it (and honestly, because I’m human, even a little smug about it; “Look what I’m doing! Aren’t I so awesome to do this!”). It is the rest of Romans 12, the rest of the Bible, that I struggle with. To be treated unfairly without making a big fuss? To let someone else have honor instead of me? To speak patiently and kindly to people who are provoking or rude? To be diligent at work, even when the task seems tedious and pointless? To give up my time to help someone else, when I have things of my own to attend to?

Those smaller sacrifices are much harder for me to make, because they don’t really feel like sacrifices as much as just, well, unfair. And yet when I read Romans 12, when I read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s life, it becomes clear that this is God’s expectation of me. God expects us to follow the example of His only begotten Son, who lived a life of constant small sacrifices so that we—who didn’t deserve His kindness—could have the opportunity of salvation. If we bear His name, we are called to live that same life of small sacrifices.

This year, as I prepare for the Passover, I am thinking about the small sacrifices that I need to embrace with more diligence. I may never be called to lay my life down in the ultimate sense; but I—along with all Christians—am called to lay down my life in small daily sacrifices which are, as Peter wrote in 1 Peter 2:5, “…spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Let us embrace the opportunity to offer these sacrifices because of our love for our Redeemer.

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Winter is descending on Cincinnati, but there are still a few leftovers of fall. A few trees are still clinging to their brightly colored leaves, though those leaves are quickly fading to brown. I remember wondering as a child why the leaves changed color, but I hadn’t thought of that question in years. But recently I read an article that stated that the leaves really aren’t changing color at all: instead, scientists say that the colors we see in fall are in the leaves throughout the year. During the spring and summer, the green color of chlorophyll in the leaves covers the red, orange, or yellow color. When fall comes, with shorter days and colder temperatures, the trees stop producing chlorophyll, and we can see bright colors that have been under that green all along.

I am charmed by the idea that those bright bursts of fall color can only show themselves when the world around them is gray and dreary. The cold temperatures and changes that make fall a blustery, unpredictable month are the same things that reveal the blaze of beauty that has been hidden all along. The trees that might have seemed to be all the same shade of green all year suddenly stand apart from one another. We can even see how healthy a tree is: when a tree isn’t very healthy, its colors won’t be as bright.

As Christians, we experience blustery times in life, too. And when trials come and life gets unpredictable, those are the moments when our true colors stand revealed, too. In 1 Corinthians 3:9-15, the apostle Paul writes that everyone who builds on the foundation of Jesus Christ should be careful how he builds and what he or she uses as material, because “…each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work…” There are two lessons for us here.

  1. 1.       We have to use the easy times to build for the hard times. When life is running smoothly, it isn’t a time to relax in our spiritual disciplines; it’s time to put in the work that will pay off when trouble comes.
  2. 2.       Hard times will show our true colors. No one wants to experience trials, but they’re going to come to everyone. We have to make sure that we are striving to become like Christ from the inside out.

We can weather the storms of life if we put our trust in God and work diligently in our Christian walk. When we do those things, trials can become times when our true colors show forth brilliant and beautiful, giving hope and courage to others.

 

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Recently, we had the opportunity to help a friend with a home repair project. He needed to waterproof his basement, and in order to do that it was necessary to dig a trench beside the basement wall. This was no small undertaking: the trench would need to be about 7 feet deep and 15 feet long, and wide enough that he could stand down in it. Fortunately, several acquaintances had come to help, lured with the promise of free food.

Digging wasn’t the only task at hand, though it was the main objective: as we dug, the growing pile of dirt needed to be raked and shoveled into a stable heap that wouldn’t collapse back onto the diggers. And to make things a little more exciting, our friend and his wife have a toddler and an infant that needed a close eye kept on them. In addition, we had all ages and skill levels represented, from preteens to teenagers to young adults to my husband and I, who are fast approaching middle age.

The further we dug, the heavier the shovels became as the topsoil turned to clay. As the trench got deeper, fewer people could work in it at one time, because we needed more room to swing the shovels. It was dirty, hot, and graceless work as we dug into the earth below where we were standing and then swung shovels full of damp clay up above our heads.

The fascinating thing to me was that we accomplished this task in several hours that were free from complaining, criticism, or anger. We were all so focused on the work we needed to do, and the help we wanted to give our friends, that we worked closely together without a single negative remark. And as we came together in this difficult task, our combined effort showed itself not only in a growing pile of dirt, but also in a growing together of our love for one another. Where we had been only acquaintances, we developed a new bond of respect and love. Where friendship had already existed, it grew deeper as we tackled a challenge together and spurred one another on. As we came together to do the work, the work itself brought us closer together.

As we finished our digging, late in the afternoon, and gratefully dropped our gloves and shovels, I thought about Ephesians 4:15-16, where Paul writes of his hope that we, the body of Christ, “…speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.”

Hard work can indeed bring individuals together and build a deep bond between them. But hard work alone is not enough. We have been called to an enormous task, a lifelong commitment to the work of God. What are the things we need to keep in mind as we labor together so that we do form those deep bonds of respect and love?

1)      We have to speak and act in love. One of the things that set our digging party apart was that there was no complaining or criticism. I didn’t hear even one negative word about the work someone else was doing; instead, I heard politeness and encouraging comments: “Thank you.” “Please.” “You’re a rock star!” “Fantastic job!” Despite having to work very closely together—so close that there were occasional near-misses with flying dirt or shovel handles—our feelings remained intact because we spoke and acted in love towards one another.

2)      We have to be focused on the task we’re trying to accomplish. We each had different duties. Some of us spent most of the time babysitting; others took turns digging, or worked with shovels and rakes to keep the dirt from falling back into the trench. But instead of focusing on whatever our task was at the moment, we kept in mind the bigger goal: digging a ditch. It didn’t really matter who spent the most time digging, or who dug fastest, or who never dug at all; the point was that we were laboring together for a specific cause, and we were committed to doing what needed to be done in order to reach that goal.

3)      Every part must do their share, and every part must respect that the others are doing their share. Imagine how poorly we would have worked together if we had spent our time looking at what everyone else was doing and trying to figure out whether what they were doing was as hard as what we were doing. Not only would the work have taken longer, the atmosphere would have been rotten. We were able to finish our task and grow closer together because we respected the jobs that others were doing, even when it was different from what we were doing. One friend made coffee and went out to get pizza; one entertained the toddler and kept him from getting too close to the work; some were digging, some were raking, and some were resting so they could help when one of the others got tired. All of those tasks were necessary for the completion of the work; without even one of those, the work would have been slower and harder. Every person did their task cheerfully and to the best of their ability, and every person respected the others for doing their tasks.

4)      We have to desire to grow together in love. If we didn’t care about each other, we could still get the task done—but we wouldn’t have the benefit of having created positive bonds of friendship, and that task would have been only a difficult chore. In addition, we would have little motivation to ever work together again. But because we all shared a desire to work well together, and acted in love towards each other, we did grow in love—and we know that we can work well together on any other task that comes up.

The body of Christ has an immense task to do, and we can only accomplish it if we remember these things. We must focus on the larger goal, be willing to do our share, respect that others are doing the task that God has given them to do, and we have to truly desire to grow together in love. If we do all those things, we will indeed grow and edify one another in love, and we will accomplish the commission we have been given. If we do our work in love, then the work will bring us closer together.

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I open my Facebook page and try to catch up on my friends’ news. But instead of seeing the camp photos, summer trip stories, and new baby updates I’m looking for, I find myself scrolling past heated words, pictures and cartoons with in-your-face messages, and status updates designed to provoke. My Twitter account is no better as friends and acquaintances of various backgrounds and ideologies loudly proclaim their allegiance and belief in the causes about which they’re passionate. Rather than feeling connected with anyone, I start the day feeling like everyone is unpleasant. I haven’t said a word to anyone yet, but it feels like the world is shouting at me, and sometimes it’s using words that aren’t very nice.

I might be the only person who has had this experience, but I suspect that there are others out there. Many seem to be wondering whether society is getting ruder, or whether we’re just noticing it more. And the problem is intensified on the Internet, where some seem to lose their inhibitions when it comes to speaking in rude, provocative, or angry ways. Often, bold or harsh statements are made in a passive-aggressive way: just vague enough that when someone’s feelings are hurt, the author can say, “Well, I’m not angry. I’m just saying how I see things.” Or, “I didn’t say I was talking about anyone specific.”  Others claim the more altruistic motives of “just telling the truth” or “trying to make people more aware.” But whatever the reasoning or the motive, the result is not harmony, education, or enlightenment; instead, these words that fill my screen (and perhaps yours) often result in hurt feelings, damaged relationships, loss of respect, and the creation of a hostile environment.

Does the Bible have anything to say about what seems to be a very modern problem? I found an interesting passage in the book of Proverbs as I was thinking about this.

“If you have been foolish in exalting yourself,
Or if you have devised evil, put your hand on your mouth.
For as the churning of milk produces butter,
And wringing the nose produces blood,
So the forcing of wrath produces strife”
(Proverbs 30:32-33, NKJV).

Matthew Henry’s commentary points out that the “forcing of wrath” is equivalent to purposely irritating someone, provoking them to anger. Strife and anger follow provocative behavior and words. I can certainly testify to that; when others’ words are meant to provoke, my initial reaction is anger. I want to respond with my own harsh words or provoking statements. But we, as Christians, are called to a different reaction. We are also called to a different action.

Perhaps the clearest summation of how we ought to guide our conduct was written by James. He advised, “Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show by good conduct that his works are done in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and self-seeking in your hearts, do not boast and lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic. For where envy and self-seeking exist, confusion and every evil thing are there. But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy. Now the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:13-18, NKJV).

When we compare the proverb to James’s instructions, we can quickly see the similarity. Exalting ourselves, says the proverb, is foolish. James points out that wisdom is meek and willing to yield. Righteousness, he continues, is sown by those who make peace; strife—which is the opposite of peace—is created by those who force wrath. There are two options open to us when we choose how to act or how to speak: wisdom and folly. Wise choices—righteous choices—lead to peace. They create it where it may not have existed previously. By contrast, foolish, provocative behaviors create wrath and strife where it may not have been before.

Rude and obnoxious behavior is nothing new. It has existed as long as humans have been alive. We can see from the book of Proverbs that provocative behavior was not born in the Internet age. The same choices that were open to the ancients—peace or strife, wisdom or folly—are open to us today. We can either choose to say the sharp, provocative thing, or we can choose to stop shouting and start making peace. Only one of those choices shows us as truly wise.

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